Newsletter No. 51 (July 2007)

Gateway to China: how Australian libraries have supported China scholarship

Wan Wong

National Library of Australia

A slightly different version of this article was presented at the 10th Biennial Conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Austrlia

I was happy to learn that the theme of this CSAA Conference is celebrating Chinese scholarship in Australia. As a librarian serving the Chinese studies community for the last ten years, I felt that under this theme, a paper outlining the major milestones of Chinese librarianship in Australia would be very useful. Chinese librarianship has come a long way since its beginnings in the 1950s, and has evolved to serve the user community in the best way possible.

The beginnings

The first Chinese collections in Australia were established in the 1950s in the National Library of Australia, the Australian National University (ANU) Library and the University of Sydney Library. Post-WWII Australia was of course much more aware of the proximity of her Asian neighbours than before. China had emerged as the leading country in Asia to be more closely studied. Other Chinese collections to be established gradually around the country included that in the University of Melbourne in 1961, and both in the University of Adelaide and Murdoch University in 1975. The University of Queensland and Griffith University also began to develop Chinese collections around this time.

Throughout the 1950s to the early 1980s the emphasis of Chinese studies libraries was to expand their collections and acquire everything they could from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, the U.S. and so on. But of course mainland China remained the focus. During this period, libraries all made good use of the low value of the Chinese dollar. Even charged the so-called “export price” which could be up to three times the domestic price, libraries still found publications from the mainland very affordable. In the National Library, for instance, publications were literally acquired on blanket orders, meaning that a copy of any publication that could be exported would be sent to the Library. Inevitably there were not enough staff to deal with such a sustained influx of materials. Backlogs were quite common in the larger Chinese collections, with only limited user access to the collection.

One way to alleviate this situation was to rationalise the collecting by working with other libraries. Co-operation between libraries collecting Chinese publications started with the National Library and the ANU Library, due also largely to the physical proximity of the two institutions. As early as 1956 the two libraries signed a co-operative collecting agreement, which was subsequently revised in 1973 and expanded in particular areas in the 1990s. The agreement was an attempt to allocate the responsibility for collecting in certain areas to one library, and reflected the concept of a “distributed national collection” which still underlies some of the collecting work libraries do now.

There has also been long-standing co-operation on Chinese library resources at the state level, for example between Griffith University and the University of Queensland, as well as between Monash University and the University of Melbourne. More recently the latter developed into part of what is now called the Asian Libraries in Melbourne (ALIM) (http://alim.monash.org/).

The co-operation among libraries also saw the creation of a union catalogue of East Asian monographs (UCEAM) in the 1970s. Produced on microfilm, the union catalogue enabled users and librarians alike to locate particular publications for inter-library loans or document supply. This effort was later expanded to include union lists of Chinese and Japanese journals.

Having enjoyed the constant and “automatic” supply of Chinese publications for a while, the supply dried up dramatically during the first years of the Cultural Revolution except for the few party organs which were more propaganda than informative. Those included Ren min ri bao (人民日报), Ren min hua bao (人民画报), Hong qi (红旗) and Guang ming ri bao (光明日报). Under this circumstance librarians needed to actively look for other sources of supply to satisfy their users’ ever increasing curiosity about what was happening behind the bamboo curtain. Some suppliers in Hong Kong started to become famous among libraries for their resourcefulness in finding mainland Chinese publications, many of them marked “for internal use only” and supplying them quite often in photocopies.

Supply of publications gradually returned to a normal level after 1972. And of course after the official opening up of China to the world in 1978 the publishing industry in China enjoyed an unprecedented boom, which saw the size of Chinese collections in Australian libraries grow exponentially.

Thus, this period was characterised by the establishment of Chinese collections in an increasing number of institutions, starting in Canberra and spreading out to major capital cities. Librarians in charge of these Chinese collections faced the momentous task of building up their collections to serve their users. In doing that they all faced the same problem of finding reliable suppliers of materials. This problem was particularly evident during the Cultural Revolution in China. Developments in an ever changing China made Chinese studies a versatile but interesting area of study. At the same time it also made the life of Chinese librarians very challenging. Early co-operation by libraries in various matters laid a solid foundation for them to work on together later.

1980s to 1990s

During the 1980s and the 1990s the Chinese collections in Australia grew to a considerable size. A survey conducted in December 1984 showed that the number of libraries with East Asian language collections had grown to 32. There were a total of 246,902 Chinese monographs titles, 8,234 serial titles and 7,957 items on microform. 1 Chinese scholarship was enjoying a boom and now Chinese librarians were faced with another critical issue: how to provide good access to their collections.

Since the 1970s computers were starting to appear in libraries. Being on mainframes, their use was mostly for storage and processing of large amounts of data, including bibliographic data. In the early 1980s the National Library launched the Australian Bibliographic Network and gradually more and more Chinese librarians began cataloguing on to the network. This marked the beginning of the inclusion of Chinese bibliographic records in a national database. Resource sharing activities such as inter-library loan and document supply could be supported much more easily in this online environment.

Computers at the time had practically no capability of handling Chinese script. The system that the Australian Bibliographic Network ran on was no exception, and could only handle Romanized data. As early as the late 1970s Chinese librarians were already searching for a solution to the computer processing of bibliographic data in the Chinese vernacular script. In 1992 the National Library, the ANU Library, and the libraries of the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne formed a consortium to look into what was available to provide a system that could handle East Asian script. At around the same time the libraries of the University of Queensland and Griffith University announced a joint project to develop a PC-based Chinese-Japanese-Korean (CJK) library system for use by the two libraries.

These efforts finally culminated in the world’s first online union catalogue devoted to CJK materials, known as the National CJK Service launched in 1996. Starting with a core membership of eight, the service eventually expanded to 23 member libraries plus a few affiliated libraries. The service hosted a database containing most of the Chinese collections in Australia including those in some large public libraries. This system generated a great deal of interest internationally and demonstrated to the world the high level of expertise as well as co-operation in East Asian libraries in Australia. Another first in this Service was the parallel existence of two databases for Chinese materials, a Wade-Giles and a pinyin database. Resulting from a compromise to cater for member libraries wishing to use one particular romanisation scheme, this did make the National CJK Service the first in the world to host a major bibliographic database of Chinese collection in pinyin, four years ahead of a worldwide switch to pinyin led by the Library of Congress.

Apart from access to bibliographic data, the 1990s also saw the beginning of databases which provided easier access to information. While none of these early databases contained information in the vernacular, typically they provided access to economic information, news and current affairs, patent information, etc. Towards the mid 1990s CD-ROMs which contained reproductions of original materials started to appear. In 1996, for instance, some libraries acquired the Zhongguo ge ming shi dang an wen xian guang pan ku (中国革命史档案文献光盘库) which covered titles from the Republican era such as Xin qing nian (新青年) as well as collections of party documents. CD-ROMs continued to be the mainstay of electronic information until the early 21st century.

Electronic information was also actively created by libraries during this time. The Chinese Serials Database project at the ANU Library was the best example. Jointly developed with the National Library of China, the project was designed “to provide internet access to table of contents of selected Chinese journals in script linked to keyword indexes in English”.2 Apart from providing access to the information of each journal, a document delivery service was also offered. A formal agreement was signed between the two libraries at the end of 1994 and the database was formally launched in August 1995. Again this was a first in the world and was hailed as revolutionary at the time. Although the project only lasted for roughly three years, it broke some very important ground in co-operating and communicating with a major Chinese institution and, solving internet access problems, among others.

It is time now to examine the close relationship between Chinese libraries in Australia and China. We have already looked at the high level of co-operation among Chinese librarians in Australia in both collection development and system development. They have also enjoyed a long standing relationship with libraries in China, notably the National Library of China, the Shanghai Library and the University of Beijing Library. Under the Australian-Chinese Cultural Exchange Agreement, a delegation from the National Library of China, then called National Library of Beijing, visited Australian libraries during May to June 1978. An Australian delegation returned the visit in January 1980. Apart from formal visits there was an active exchange of personnel with librarians from the mainland working in Australian libraries during the 1980s and the 1990s, spending between three months and two years each. In return some Australian librarians also spent time working in libraries in China, in addition to informal visits.

The 21st century

In the new millennium, the dominant player for Chinese libraries in developing their collections was full text databases. We have already mentioned that CD-ROMs appeared on the market as a medium of publication in the mid-1990s. Full texts of Chinese classics such as Er shi wu shi (二十五史) and Si ku quan shu (四库全书) were also becoming increasingly accessible in large CD-ROM sets, some published in Taiwan. Collecting Chinese publications is now inextricably linked with providing access to electronic information. As Chinese librarians actively sought solutions and assistance from the IT staff in their own institutions in regard to installation of CD-ROMs, online full text databases started to appear. Wanfang Data (www.wanfangdata.com) and CNKI (www.cnki.net) are the vendors of the most popular databases for libraries outside China. These full text databases cover journals, newspapers, dissertations and patents, among numerous others. At the same time Chinese e-book database vendors were also trying to enter the Australian market. The SuperStar e-book database has been acquired by a newcomer to Chinese collections, the University of Technology, Sydney Library, and is under consideration by other libraries.

The move away from information resources on CD-ROMs to web-based products was partly made possible by advances in computer operating systems. The advance of Unicode and its uptake by Microsoft has opened up the possibility of integrating non-Roman script data with mainstream applications. Having provided a highly effective service to its member libraries and users for ten and a half years, the National CJK Service was decommissioned and replaced by the new Libraries Australia service (www.librariesaustralia.nla.gov.au) at the end of 2005. This marked the first time in Australia when the national bibliographic database incorporates all major East Asian scripts. The dream of Chinese librarians since the 1980s was finally realised now that researchers have a single interface to the national database where script data can be searched directly and displayed properly.

Another significant development in the new millennium saw libraries also becoming creators of digital information in carrying out digitisation projects for Chinese studies. The ANU’s Giles Pickford Collection of photographs on early 20th century China (https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/20) and the Chinese Digital Archive 1966-1976 on Cultural Revolution materials (https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/7575) are two good cases in point. The National Library is also trialling the full digitisation of its rare London Missionary Society collection as a preservation strategy.

This period saw libraries moving gradually to electronic information in place of print, perhaps to the dismay of some academics. The drawback of course is that restrictive licence conditions of most databases present problems in resource sharing and document delivery. Coupled with the difficulty of lending CD-ROMs, the access to research information for researchers in regional centres or universities is becoming more acute. The potential for library co-operation in collection development is also more difficult. This leads to the need for libraries to investigate a consortium approach or arranging national licences for these databases.

Indeed the very nature of collection development is facing new challenges. In October 2005 the National Library organised an Asia Research Forum which brought together researchers and librarians. It was clear from the Forum that Chinese studies in Australia has now moved into a new era with the focus moving away from the traditional study of Asian civilizations to research on contemporary issues, diffused to various disciplines. Researchers are now finding it necessary to consult a wide range of materials which may not fall into the traditional categories of collecting in libraries, such as tourist guides, popular comics, blogs, images, ephemera, etc. While maintaining their level of collecting in traditional print materials, libraries will need to explore new ways to collect and provide access to such a wide variety of materials not available through the normal channels. Perhaps new partnerships with libraries in China are part of the answer, in archiving web sites for instance.

Chinese libraries in Australia have served their user communities well in the past decades. They have certainly come a long way in both building the collections and enabling access to it. In the near future, the role of Chinese libraries in providing integrated access to information in various formats and available from different channels is a new question that all need to face. The need for library co-operation has thus taken on a new dimension as librarians need to work closely with one another and with the academic community to work through these issues.

1. Wang, S.W. “Automation of East Asian catalogue records in Australian libraries”, EALRGA newsletter, no. 9 (Apr. 1986) p. 1-5

2. Prentice, Susan. “Old barriers, new frontiers: Chinese information access in Australia”, EALRGA newsletter, no. 28 (Feb. 1995), p. 10-14

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